Should Foreign Aid be Reduced?

The US has a history of granting foreign aid to nations across the world, a legacy that stretches back over 100 years. Under the Trump administration, the US' role in the world and its contribution to its global aid has been called into question. Samuel Vilenski explains why the US must not reduce the amount of aid it gives, while Alec Sweet argues that the US must reduce its foreign aid budget.
Ross ReggioPolitics Editor

No Reduction

The question of whether the United States should provide foreign aid, and if so, to what degree, is one of significant interest to voters, but it is also one that is riddled with complexities. For that reason, the question requires a nuanced investigation of its different facets, rather than its wholesale acceptance or rejection. Furthermore, while there are strong sentiments on the side that opposes foreign aid, the accepted wisdom that Americans generally disapprove of all foreign assistance is a misleading view, and, similarly, one that invites a more detailed analysis.

A Rasmussen poll conducted in March of this year found that 57% of likely voters believe that the $42 billion that the government plans to spend this year on foreign aid is too much, 6% believe that it is not enough, and 27% found it to be the right amount [1]. This view among the population is most likely due to a common misconception about how much money is spent on foreign aid relative to the total US Government budget. Polls regularly find that Americans grossly overestimate this figure: in 2015, the Kaiser Foundation discovered that the median estimate among Americans for that value was 20 percent, while in truth, foreign aid makes up, at most, 1 percent of the federal budget. To that point, when the real value was revealed to the people surveyed, only 26 percent favored a decrease in U.S. spending on foreign aid [2].

Moreover, when asked about the specific ways in which foreign aid is distributed, those polled (in a different poll) overwhelmingly showed that they support foreign aid for humanitarian causes. For instance, 81 percent of people said that they favor “food and medical assistance to people in needy countries” and when asked which countries it is most important to give aid to, “61 percent chose ‘countries with the poorest economies’” over ‘US trading partners’ or ‘countries important to US security [3].’ This goes to show that Americans support foreign aid that is principled—aid that is given with the intention of helping people in need. However, voters do have reservations that are based on understandable worries.

One such concern is the level of corruption and misuse of money that is supposed to be used for helping people. It cannot be denied that the government’s good-will is exploited, as there is documented evidence that attests to that fact. For example, money has been used to prop up dictators, dishonest officials have been known to set up intricate schemes for laundering money, and there exist black markets for antimalarial drugs, which were donated to patients in Africa [4].

However, if the goal is a worthy one, then corruption and misuse of funds should not be a limiting factor on aid. Not only do I believe that helping those in need, wherever they may be, is a commendable end, but clearly most people across America do as well. Therefore, our response to evidence of corruption should not be to discontinue that aid. We should strive to find better ways of holding those who abuse our government’s compassion accountable. This is something that should be possible, given that foreign aid is one of the issues that receives the most bipartisan support in our divided Congress [5].

There are also those who question the good that U.S. foreign aid actually accomplishes. While it would be ignorant to doubt the fact that there are inefficiencies and unwanted effects of foreign aid, the number of lives changed by the benevolence of our government is staggering. Aid from the US has helped 4.3 million people meet basic sanitation standards, provided clean water to 7.6 million people, and created safe learning spaces and reading institutions for more than 41.6 million children [6]. And those are just a few of the programs that the US government invests in.

It is also true, however, that not all of the aid, no matter how well-intentioned it is, produces its desired effect, and sometimes even creates worse situations. Afghanistan, for instance, is the prime example of a country that became too dependent on foreign aid. Today, foreign aid is the backbone of its economy and it lacks the foundations it needs to become strong and independent [7]. Other times, foreign aid has been found to undermine local economies by providing goods that drive entrepreneurs out of the market. This is especially the case when aid is given in-kind, rather than as cash. For example, the donation of second-hand clothes led to the collapse of textile industries in many African countries during the 1970s and we 80s by ignoring market forces and undercutting clothes manufacturers [8]. Nevertheless, these are just other cases in which it would not make much sense to abandon the project simply because there are some difficulties. If we are capable of helping those in need, then why wouldn’t we at least try?

"If we are capable of helping those in need, then why wouldn’t we at least try?"

There are many smart people in the government who can attempt to find solutions to these problems. One strategy that has produced success, for example, is the promotion of democracy, strong institutions, and stable governments rather than the delivery of goods directly to people. This method helps stave off dependency on foreign money and create sturdier foundations on which third-world countries can thrive. Such was the case of South Korea, an undeveloped nation that was able to establish a sturdy state with the help of US aid. Today, South Korea has developed into one of the most industrialized and technologically advanced nations in the world [9].

Although foreign aid is sometimes problematic and presents its fair share of difficulties, again, we should not be discouraged. We must recognize that the programs the United States promotes have a positive impact on the world, that help people, and that makes the world a better place. The obstacles that we face should motivate us to find better solutions to our problems; rather than turning inwards we should focus our energy on doing what is good. Although we have problems at home, we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of people around the world; as members of the human community it is our duty and responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of those who most need it, whether they are here or across the globe.

Samuel VilenskiStaff Writer


The United States spends billions of dollars on Foreign Aid a year. That amount is spent on programs that range from economic aid to development assistance to military aid. The United States also ranks first as the most generous country giving the most foreign aid yearly [10]. The United States has done its part in contributing to world development, and with rising debt, and domestic problems back home, it is time that the United States focuses on improving itself first and cut the foreign aid it provides.

American foreign aid has increased more than 100% since 2000. Not including aid, we give out through the United Nations, the United States now spends almost 50 billion dollars on foreign aid a year [11]. This increase in foreign aid comes as the United States is facing a deficit nearing 666 billion dollars for the fiscal year 2017 and a national debt of over 20 trillion dollars. Certainly, 50 billion dollars seems to be a drop in the bucket compared to the deficit and the national debt, but foreign aid is a program that can be cut to help begin to reduce the deficit. Reducing foreign aid is certainly favorable than cutting popular or useful social programs that could otherwise see reductions if foreign aid is kept. Over 60% of the United States population is in favor of cutting foreign aid, 27% would like to see aid stay the same and only 10% want to see the amount increased [12]. Cutting foreign aid is a popular alternative to what could otherwise be devastating cuts to programs that would otherwise be eliminated.

Completely cutting foreign aid is not necessarily the best way for the United States to approach foreign aid. Some aid is useful in advancing American interests globally. Aid to countries like Pakistan, however, is foolish. Pakistan has in the past openly supported terrorist groups and is almost certainly continuing to do so today [13]. The United States quite simply should not be giving Pakistan any money. Israel is also one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid. Most of this aid comes in the form of military assistance. Israel has one of the strongest and most technologically advanced militaries on the planet, and themselves only give .07% of their National Income in foreign aid. Much of this aid to Israel is not needed, the Israelis are powerful enough to stand completely on their own two feet. This is not to say that we should eliminate all aid necessarily or that we should stop being an ally of Israel, we simply do not need to give them as much money as we do when the money could be better spent. The vast majority of American aid is going to Middle Eastern and African countries [14]. Some of this aid is military aid but much of it is also development or economic aid. As callous as it might sound, the United States has problems of its own that it cannot or does not finance; their problems are not ours and we should focus on bettering our own country first. We should prioritize the citizens of Flint, Michigan over non-Americans. We should prioritize rebuilding eroded bridges, fixing our road infrastructure, or improving our education system at home instead of spending that money elsewhere.

"We should prioritize rebuilding eroded bridges and fixing/improving our road infrastructure at home instead of spending that money elsewhere."

Aid itself is a noble goal but actually can work contrary to its stated goal. Foreign aid was always meant to be temporary, it was intended to help to boost the economy until a country was self-sustaining. Aid has failed spectacularly in this regard. One of the reasons United States aid continues to increase is the fact that instead of allowing countries to become self-sufficient, countries are actually becoming dependent on foreign aid [15]. Foreign aid has the potential to suffocate the growth of local production actually stunting the economic growth of countries and damaging their potential to become self-sufficient. Africa was once an exporter of food, but now is a net importer of food, other countries like Peru, Haiti, and Guatemala have at times refused US aid in the past over fears of suffocating growing economies [16]. It is also no coincidence that the most developed parts of the World received no foreign aid. Besides the United States and Europe, the rise of the Asian Tigers to economically developed countries was done with minimal aid. Aid encourages the growth of large inefficient bureaucracies that can be fatal to the growth of country. Most of the aid given is squandered by government and hardly ever reaches the citizens it is meant to help. Many uber-rich individuals are rulers of Less Developed Countries. It must be kept in mind that transferring money from rich to poor countries does not ensure that this money is transferred from rich to poor individuals. With aid increasingly being tied to need, it has also incentivized these countries to inflict self-damaging actions to continue to qualify for and receive aid. Economically strong but politically weak groups in these countries can face increased persecution.

Foreign aid is a noble concept but one which is flawed in practice. Money spent on aid could otherwise be spent on programs at home. The United States is by no means perfect and the ability to keep programs open that benefit Americans by cutting foreign aid should be done. Foreign aid also hurts the very countries it is intended to help. By retarding growth and perpetuating poverty in countries, foreign aid is more of a curse than a blessing. For these multitudes of reasons, the United States should cut the foreign aid it provides.

Alec SweetStaff Writer

Sources and Notes

Featured Image: "AFRICOM Support" by USFRICOM— Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —


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